Christmas came a day early for Gilroy homeowner Erin Cerdan as she was handed a check for $27,836.14 — more than a decade of overpaid taxes– from County Assessor Larry Stone.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Cerdan, an administrative assistant at Pacific Point Christian School who welled up with tears talking to the press. “I invited all my neighbors over. Because we’re a family in this neighborhood. We built our homes together and we were all struggling together for a while there.”
Stone, a politician’s politician, orchestrated a media event on a slow news day for the giveaway, like a Publisher’s Clearing House ad, sans giant check and balloons. “You don’t usually see the assessor giving away money,” he said to the cameras before walking up to Cerdan’s door in the Los Arroyos neighborhood.
He was only allowed to go back four years of assessments, but got a special order from the County Board of Supervisors to make up the money for those who had been shorted longer and pay interest on it. Cerdan got her home in 2002.
“We regret this error. It was an innocent error but we have the obligation to make it right,” he added, giving a tearful Cerdan the money. Some 216 Gilroyans will also get checks over the next weeks for a total of $3.3 million as a result of reporting errors that no one has been blamed for.
The Los Arroyos neighborhood includes “sweat equity” homes, where the owners helped build the two-story ranch houses in return for below rate mortgages. Others got a lower rate on condition they wouldn’t resell them at market rates. The trouble occurred when they were taxed at full market value. Neither the builder, South County Housing, which has built hundreds of other low income homes without the same problem, nor the city, let the assessor’s office know that these should be taxed at their lower value.
Cerdan, whose husband Gabriel works two maintenance jobs from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. to afford the house, said the money will take the pressure off him and allow him to spend more time with the family. It will also help pay down some debts.
She was the first to notice that her taxes had jumped higher than she was led to believe when she bought the house. Her mortgage payment jumped over $300 a month and was told by the bank that it was for property taxes. Further calls told her that all the neighbors were having their rates raised. When she told them it was a sweat equity home, the county didn’t have paperwork to prove it.
She began organizing the neighbors, some of whom had to choose between buying food and paying the high taxes, and contacted officials including Gilroy Mayor Don Gage, who she thanked for his help.
“I don’t blame anyone,” she said. “Fate happens. Nobody’s perfect. Government’s not perfect, but like Larry said, when a problem does come you try to get it resolved as quickly as you can. I believe they did that.“
Cerdan gave Pot of Gold chocolate bars to officials and neighbors to celebrate.
“All of us were having a hard time with everyday life. That’s everybody,” she said. “I”m not just people with low incomes are the only ones. Things happen in life. I had a lot of medical things come up and I kept charging, charging charging. And with the mortgage, I thought we might lose our home, the home we built. So I just kept at it, contacting people and getting the word out.”
The next question is how much taxes the families will have to pay on the refunds. Stone couldn’t answer and advised them to speak to tax experts.